Monday, 3 August 2020

Don't Hate the System, Love the Players

The regular Ryuutama game continues. I very much enjoy running it, and I think the campaign has hit a nice groove. This is despite the system's many flaws. In fact I'd go so far as to say that the system's deficiencies, as is pretty much always the case, can be accepted and ignored as long as everybody is into the campaign.

This reminds me me of my old adage that I have just thought up: if you get on well with the other players and you are on the same wavelength, the system doesn't matter. If you don't get on well with the other players and are not on the same wavelength, then why are you gaming with them?

Either way you cut it, system is overrated. 

This reminds me of de Jasay's old point that if politicians abide by sensible norms of conduct you don't really need a constitution, and if they don't then a constitution won't help restrain them. This is not quite true in games (what Nassim Taleb pompously calls "the ludic domain"), where rules are generally an effective constraint on action. But RPGs are an exception within the exception; they aren't about winning or losing in the strict sense (winning means everybody is happy to play again next week), so the original point has force. If people are on board with the campaign, you don't really need to abide by the rules or pay too much attention to the system. If people aren't, the rules won't help. 

The exception within the exception within the exception is circumstances in which figuring out the intricacies of the system itself is part of the fun. I'm thinking here of games like D&D 3rd edition, GURPS, and the like. In those cases, system clearly matters; but I suspect the only people who get into those systems in the first place are the groups who enjoy that sort of game. By definition, then, people who play them consistently are already "on board" with the system, and the point becomes moot. 

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Somebody Published Something I Wrote

Yes - I contributed one of the four adventure sites for Fria Lagen's The Crypt of the Mellified Mage. It is called 'The Firing Pit of Llao-Yutuy', and depicts the home and workshop of a potter who imbues his pots with the souls of people his followers kidnap. 

It is statted-up for Forbidden Lands, but you could easily port it into any system or setting. (It is pretty 'plug and play' in nature.) There is probably at least 3-4 sessions worth of play in it, and hooks to link it into a broader campaign. 

Friday, 31 July 2020

What do you call this feeling?

There is a certain sensation which has no name that I am aware of, but which I am sure you are familiar with. It is the feeling of atavistic thrill that runs down your spine and makes your pulse race when you see something that it has hitherto been suggested to have awesome and almighty power suddenly reveal it to devastatingly destructive effect.

I was reminded of this feeling recently when re-watching Laputa: Castle in the Sky. If you have seen the film, you will know the scene I am talking about - it is the one in which the half-damaged robot, which had previously been thought defunct, is suddenly activated and single-handedly destroys an almighty fortress and, presumably, kills hundreds of people in the process. Sadly, YouTube only has this short Metallica-ized clip, which doesn't do it justice, but still:

Miyazaki loves these moments - his earlier films are full of them. But so does Hollywood. You will be familiar with these examples:

There are plenty of others - in literature as well as film (China Mieville, for example, has always struck me as a writer with a keen instinct for this sort of scene).

Where does this feeling come from? Partly, it is pure child-like love of destruction. Partly it is a kind of received glory: as though one is somehow vicariously edified by a naked display of power to which one is not subject. Partly it is sheer anticipation, combined with a feeling of hidden knowledge: you know what is coming when the Terminator walks out the door of the police station, but the police - those poor fools - do not, and that can't fail to excite. And partly, perhaps, there is even a sense of the sublime in these moments - a sort of transcendant beauty in the aesthetics of strength and might. 

In summary, human beings like watching a god-like entity squish things. But we don't appear to have a single word, at least in English, which describes the sensation. 

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Samples from Yoon-Suin II

The new version of Yoon-Suin will feature 12 new keyed adventure sites. Here are the introductory sections for three of them, based in and around the Yellow City.

The Mourning Garden of the Unrequited Lover 

The garden was created in joy, and defiled in sorrow by the one who made it. A brahmin who wished to celebrate her forthcoming nuptials with a pleasure garden to present to her groom, she was spurned at the last. Her name is now forgotten, but the garden remains as a testimony to love’s cruelty and caprice. It now lies hidden behind high walls of pale rose-coloured stone with its secrets and treasures intact. Human children from the quiet neighbourhood which surrounds it jest in whispers about climbing those walls someday, but even the bravest cannot be dared to do it; the best they can manage is to cluster at the garden’s iron gate, gaze inside, and then scatter in shrieks of delighted terror at some imaginary glimpsed-at horror within. 

The Hornet’s Sting 

Navigators in the Gulf of Morays make use of the constellation of the hornet as their guide, because the bright star at the point of its sting does not move in the night sky. Lying directly under this star is a small island. Some quirk of geographical fortune gives it an appropriate shape, for while it sits low on the horizon for the most part, at its northern end there suddenly spikes up a sheer needle-like crag rising six hundred feet into the air. From a distance, this even seems to slightly curve like the stinger of some vast insect otherwise submerged beneath the sea. For these reasons the name of the island is obvious, and is the same in all of the languages spoken by the many peoples who call the Gulf of Morays and its coasts home. Despite its fame, however, rumour keeps visitors away. It is said that on its peak there lurks a spider the size of a dragon, who claims as sustenance all who set foot on the island, and that its waters are considered sacred by squid-men, who will hunt any who trespass there to the ends of the earth. 

The Museum of Relics Gathered by Wu-U the Brave and Magnificent on His Voyages to the Four Corners of the Earth 

Red Hill is a neighbourhood of faded grandeur growing ramshackle and senescent. The Old Town surrounds it on three sides; the visitor cannot escape forming the impression that, like a sand bar exposed to the rising tide, its sleepy streets and half-deserted markets will soon be engulfed by the emptiness around it. At its very edge, at the point where the Old Town can truly be said to begin, stands Wu-U’s museum: a two-storied building of white stone with elegant colonnades and handsome tiled floors coated with dust. Whether Wu-U was brave or magnificent, as the sign above the entrance to his museum suggests, is not now remembered. Nor is it known whether he did indeed travel on voyages to the four corners of the earth - or even take any voyages at all. It is at least thought that relics can indeed be found inside, although the locals - despondent, decrepit, discouraging - insist that there are probably ghosts and demons protecting them, and that it is surely not worth entering to find out. 

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Absolute freedom

A theme I have returned to over the years is the necessity for there to be some form of constraint in order for creativity to truly flourish. This can be structural (as in most traditional verse forms from haiku to sonnets, or time signatures in music) or substantive (for instance, the genre expectations of romance, detective, horror or 'literary' fiction). Yes, ideas do come from the ether, as it were - broiling up from the subconsious when taking a shower, driving, or what have you. But the actual drawn-out process of creation of something worthwhile - something that people will want to read, touch, look at, hear - needs these kinds of restriaint. 

Without any limits, absolute freedom tends to result in paralysis or wishy-washiness. I can think of no better elucidation of this point than this clip, from My Neighbours the Yamadas (ignore the first couple of seconds and forgive my shaky phone hand):

Most of the basic structural elements of D&D - character classes, stats, random encounter tables, hexmaps, monster stat blocks, and so on - can be thought of as a framework of constraints within which the imagination can be channelled and given effect. They prevent the DM from doing literally anything he feels like. Paradoxically, this results in more interesting results than most very loose and free-form games, which ultimately tend to achieve rather bland outcomes in actual play (in my experience). 

Monday, 20 July 2020

Charming Anachronism and the Historical Future Campaign

There is something deeply appealing about the future depicted in 60s and 70s SF. One in which there was interstellar travel, teleportation and aliens, but also filing cabinets, radios, and fax machines. The juxtaposition between dreamy vistas of fantastical alien worlds and the tactile quality of old-fashioned realia is intoxicating to me. I long to live in a time in which it is possible to fly to Pluto, but in which you have to buy a paper ticket in cash at an old-fashioned ticket booth in order to do so. 

The reality which we once inhabited is now rapidly disappearing before our eyes. The forests of telephone handsets, rolodexes, pencils and printers that used to surround us are vanishing into an ephemeral and textureless desert of digitised haze. As this happens, the charm of technology that you had to touch grows ever stronger. And as a result, the escapism of alternative futures - the futures that were possible once, but are no longer - begins to entice.

One of my favourite ever campaigns was a game of Cyberpunk 2020 which was set in 2020 as it was seen from the 1980s: all Soviet threat and looming nuclear war, mobile phones that looked like bricks, an AIDS pandemic in full swing, and nary a tweet in sight. If you wanted to take a picture of something, you had to have a (film) camera; if you wants to contact somebody, you had to call them up - or at best bleep their pager. 

Let us call this type of setting a 'historical future' campaign. This is one set not in a realistically imaginable future of the present, but in the actually imagined future of a particular point in the past. 

I am currently reading Jack Vance's Demon Princes series, set many hundreds of years in the future, but in which there is no internet (and indeed hardly any computerisation), people read physical newspapers and magazines, and everybody uses 'fake meters' to check notes and coins for counterfeits. A Demon Princes campaign would, in other words, be a historical future one - it is the far future as envisioned in the late 1960s. 

Another possibility would of course be the delicate utopian vistas of 1920s SF, of Metropolis or Ralph 124C41+ - glimmering, gleaming, calling us to a place in which pain is forgotten and our only limits are our own minds. 

The question then becomes: what is the earliest point in which a historical future campaign can be rooted? It is only since the 17th century or so that we can be said to be living in a world of what Foucault called 'open historicity', wherein it made sense to think that a far future could exist at all. Before then, it seems, when people imagined the future they were only at best seeing End Times. A historical future campaign set in the events of the Book of Revelation would be quite something. But then again perhaps this is the point at which a historical future campaign becomes an impossibility on a technical point, because for some those events remain a realisable future still. Whether or not, then, such a campaign would be truly science fiction or would be more properly called eschatology, is a question I leave to the theologists. 

Friday, 17 July 2020

For Old Times' Sake: LotFP is Worth Saving

Long-time readers of the blog will know that I very rarely publicise products in general. This is for the simple reason that I don't buy many of them. I will now speak frankly: I think most stuff out there, 'OSR' or 'official' or otherwise, is over-priced and over-hyped.

The original Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules are an exception. They are in my view the best thing to come out of the 'OSR'. They were reasonably priced. They were well-made. More importantly, they were rock-solid rules which remained true to the spirit of older editions of D&D while being genuinely distinctive in their own right.

Most of the other exceptions, that I can think of, too, also have Raggi's fingerprints on them to some extent or other. These are Veins of the Earth, Vornheim, the Random Esoteric Creature Generator, Death Frost Doom, and - qualifiedly - Isle of the Unknown.

Beyond that, Raggi is one of perhaps three or four people who can genuinely be said to have had a significant role in building what we now think of as the OSR. If he hadn't been around, I am not sure that the thing would even exist; without doubt, it would have been much less significant in scale. For good or ill, if you consider yourself to be 'into' the OSR in some sense, you have to acknowledge that Raggi played a major role in building the scene. He certainly inspired me; his early posts (I am thinking in particular of thisthis, and this) played a vital part in getting me to want to really re-involve myself in this fundamentally ridiculous hobby and take it seriously once more.

To that end, and if you think, like I do, that there is more to life than whether or not people always say and think the right things, read this update and consider helping him out. Perhaps you have always meant to buy a particular LotFP book but haven't quite got round to doing it. Perhaps you like the look of some of his new stuff. Whatever - you can make up your mind for yourself. And, as Raggi himself puts it, if you want LotFP to disappear, you don't have to do anything at all.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

The Most Gameable Ghibli Film

Ghibli is in the air at the moment (yeah, yeah, I know, Patrick, Soft D&D is not really supposed to be RPG Ghibli). It coincides with me revisiting some of the old Ghibli classics in recent weeks. Last night it was Porco Rosso, or 紅の豚, to give it its proper title, and it struck me while watching it that, of all Ghibli films and settings, it is probably the one in which I would most enjoy setting an RPG campaign.

The film's story takes place in what is effectively the setting of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon - that strange combination of time and place, the Adriatic between the Wars, coated in a halcyon glaze but caught between a dark past and a bleak, threatening future, like the space which opens up between storm clouds on a summer's day to let hazy golden light gleam through. Sun-bleached beaches and hidden inlets and islets on the Dalmatian coast; deposed nobles and royals from across Europe drinking vermouth or cognac in hotel bars; women enjoying the first flush of newfound liberty; men unsuccessfully escaping grim military pasts; jazz music; spies and outlaws rubbing shoulders; laughter in the air above a background whisper of impending doom. Europe's last hurrah before its final frenzy of bloodletting, made worse because everybody knew what was coming, knew what it would be like, had experienced it first hand, but did it all over again anyway.

For all its sense of loss, it is a time and place which one would like to visit and inhabit. Miyazaki clearly would, anyway. His portrait of it is affectionate, even loving. (And it is one he revisited with similar occidental enthusiasm in The Wind Rises.) The Adriatic has surely never looked much more idyllic on film, and everybody who lives in it - even the villains - seem to share a bond of camaraderie that cannot be easily untied. There are rivalries; there is violence; but there is, above all, fun. This is a setting you really want to explore, full of big personalities who you want to get to know over cocktails. It is the Mediterranean as it can only be imagined by an optimistic Japanese man who by nature sees the best in everything.

What would PCs do in this picturesque setting? Hunt down 'sea plane pirates' in their secret lairs, or become pirates themselves. Escort cruise ships or cargo vessels. Get paid to search for spies, or to spy on others. Protect former soldiers from others wanting to settle old scores, or perhaps get involved in the settling of scores themselves. Maybe, if you wanted to get supernatural, they could pursue rumours of ghosts haunting the battlefields of the Balkans - or perhaps search for ancient Roman burial sites or attempt to track down monsters from folklore or myth. And all of it with sea planes - natch.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Review of Ryuutama: Just Four Damn Dice Rolls After Another

I have been running a campaign of Ryuutama for the last couple of months. I want to make clear at the outset that the campaign itself is a very enjoyable one, and that it is ongoing - although I've been terrible at updating the AP reports here on the blog, and life as always foils the ambition of weekly play. I always look forward to the sessions.

With all of that said, though, I'm not very impressed with the system itself.

Ryuutama suffers partly from being over-hyped; it seems that for a while whenever I saw anybody on the internet enquiring about games focusing on overland travel, this would without fail be the recommendation. This is undoubtedly partly the result of what I am increasingly thinking of as Japanflation, the phenomenon that things from Japan are evaluated unjustifiably highly simply because they are Japanese. (This is something that I first really noticed with respect to whisky; it affects RPGs as well, it seems.) But I think it is also likely just a function of the fact that there are so few games out there that seek to do what Ryuutama purportedly does, which is to make the game mostly about the joys of travel and the process of the journey.

The issue is that ultimately Ryuutama in its RAW form feels more like a board game than an RPG, and when you stop playing it in its RAW form, it ceases to be interesting or unique.

What do I mean when I say that it is more like a board game than an RPG? The answer is that the core of the system - the journey rules - are really just a series of dice rolls that the players make to determine how far they can travel, whether they get lost, how healthy they are, and whether they sleep well. It is in this respect just a somewhat more complicated version of Snakes and Ladders; while the PCs can do various things to improve their chances of success, such as buying special equipment and casting spells, once they have done this a journey is in essence simply four dice rolls that have to be performed each day. And the rules are quite explicit about this (although the author does have the sense to feel embarrassed about it):

One of the most important things to remember about Journey Checks is that they should not feel like a series of simple, silent die rolls, to be made over and over again on the journey between points A and B. Every success should prompt an in-character reaction. Every failure should set up an interesting challenge or role-play scene in the game. The GM should embellish the description of what happens, or perhaps leave it to the players to tell the group how they managed to succeed, or what occurred when they failed. While, yes, they are a series of static, rules-based die rolls, Journey Checks should immediately prompt role-playing and potentially create new twists in the story. Don’t let them become a rote chore that silences the players and just produces numeric results. [Emphasis added.]

This is weak sauce indeed: just roll the dice four times, over and over again, and then do a bit of role-playing in between or make up a challenge simply isn't good RPG design. What really surprised me was the discovery that there is no systematic method for generating events or encounters at all - they are all supposed to be either pre-scripted or spontaneously invented (with no advice or method for beginner GMs on how to go about doing this). I ultimately came to the conclusion that the best approach was to use these four 'journey check' rolls to feed into random event tables: if the journey check shows that the PCs get lost, or one of them has poor condition. then this results in a further roll on the relevant random table and you can then find out why they're lost and what happens, etc. But I had to come up with that idea entirely through my own initiative - there is no suggestion of it in the rules themselves. You could quite easily play Ryuutama as just a more or less endless series of dice rolls punctuated by arrivals at towns with pre-scripted scenarios and little role-played vignettes to break up the monotony. And, horrifyingly, I think that is actually how it is envisaged to be played by its creator.

The board-gamey feel also extends to combat, which admittedly is more like Battleships or Othello than Snakes and Ladders, although the true inspiration is clearly the Final Fantasy combat system. PCs and monsters arrange themselves in two ranks facing each other. They can shift back and forth between ranks. And they can attack enemies and defend themselves and do a few 'special moves'. And, er, that's about it. No real fluidity, no creativity, no movement. As soon as anybody tries to do anything interesting or intelligent, the system collapses and the GM just has to make something up. This is forgivable in OD&D, which was the first ever RPG and which had a 'punk' aesthetic and a highly flexible set of rules, and which concedes the power to make on the spot adjudications and house rules to individual DMs as a design choice. It is much less forgivable in a game which purports to be genuinely systematic.

Faced with the repetitiveness and rigidity of the rules, the GM ends up resorting to what he knows best, and stops really playing Ryuutama and running a red-headed bastard child of D&D masquerading as Ryuutama instead. We use the Ryuutama skills and stats and perform the journey checks, but in the end there isn't a great deal of difference between rolling STR+DEX to hit rather than THAC0, or rolling a journey check versus rolling to check if there is a random encounter. If anything, D&D's rules for travelling, such as they are, are more fully formed in that at least they give you a method for determining who the PCs meet while travelling and how they respond to them. Ryuutama doesn't have a single random encounter table or even tell a beginner GM what one is, nor any method for determining chance encounters or events on the road beyond 'just make things up as and when you feel like it, or pre-plot events', which I think in a game about overland travel is pretty unforgivable.

Ultimately, what I was hoping for was that Ryuutama would be a game that made interacting with the landscape itself interesting. It does not even come close to doing this. It might be just about possible to fiddle about with it until it did, but it would probably be simpler to start from scratch. I'm disappointed in it - although in its defence I do like the art and the occidentalist atmosphere that the images evoke.

1 1/2 Becs des corbins

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Yoon-Suin Maps and Layout Bat Signal

So, a second edition of Yoon-Suin is going to happen. It seems serendipitous that lulu can no longer print the book (see recent posts), and my 'red line' of only doing a proper fancy second edition if there was extensive new content has been fulfilled by a recent flourish of creative inspiration. I also have a publisher who is reliable and can organise things effectively. 

I expect there will be a kickstarter reasonably soon. Words and art are arranged, but it will be necessary to have somebody to work on layout, and also somebody to provide usable-at-the-table maps. If you are good at layout, and/or good at drawing gaming maps, preferably with a history of working on completed books, then please get in touch with me at noismsgames AT and provide samples. 

Please do not reply in the comments saying you want to do it or providing links and whatnot (or suggestions either, for that matter). Email me instead! 

You are of course welcome to post other things - praise, abuse, advice, vicious and hateful diatribes, or otherwise - in the comments as desired.